How to Rewire Your Brain to Overcome Anxiety
By: Jaclyn Kotora, Contributing Writer
When one thinks about the word anxiety, it is often associated with disorders and the ‘bad’ feeling many endure during episodes of panic and fear. The truth is, anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing. Uncomfortable, yes, but it serves a function: to motivate us to avoid danger. On the other hand, disordered anxiety can take control over life and prevent us from enjoying it. However, humans can rewire their brains by challenging learned habits and information that cause anxiety through new experiences and exposure.
The first concept to recognize is that avoidance feeds anxiety. To better understand this concept, one should understand the anxiety cycle, which is the process that the brain undergoes when anxiety takes control over an individual’s actions, and where anxiety can spiral out of control.
The beginning of the anxiety cycle is an individual classifying the situation as dangerous. For instance, if one was afraid of dogs, this step might entail someone thinking, “I am going to be attacked by this dog”. The second part of the cycle would be avoidance. Using the same example, perhaps someone would run away from the dog and hide to avoid anything harmful happening to them. The third step, which is the relief felt from escaping, would trigger a response from the brain. Emma McAdam, a licensed therapist, explains the following step as: “... your brain releases this surge of relief… [and the brain thinks] the only way I survived was because I ran away… I better do that again. I’m going to motivate my human to avoid that situation by increasing their anxiety about it.”
Every time the decision is made to avoid anxiety, the brain reinforces that behavior, and it urges that behavior again in the future. As an effect, our anxiety about that situation raises one level. Another thing to keep in mind is that avoidance comes in many different ways. One way could be behavioral avoidance, which could be running away or not participating in the event. Another type is cognitive or emotional avoidance, which might entail someone suppressing their thoughts and emotions or replacing them with distractions, daydreams, or more manageable emotions, such as anger.
Not only does avoidance increase anxiety, but it also shrinks down the world one feels comfortable in, which may prevent a person from having enjoyable experiences and fostering healthy relationships. Fortunately, we have the potential to stop anxiety from spiraling out of control by interfering with this cycle. One way to do this is by managing our actions. For instance, if one decides to stay and stick with the anxiety instead of running away, and there ends up no negative consequence, that can trigger a positive response from the brain. Similar to how the brain reinforces avoidance for primal survival reasons, the brain will also reinforce the safety of the situation once standing up to it and surviving. When deciding to face anxieties, and no harmful effect occurs, the anxiety around that situation will decrease one notch and one’s tolerance to the uncomfortableness of the emotion will increase. This tactic is called exposure therapy, a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skill that helps people face their fears in a safe way.
However, while this concept is simple, it could be troublesome to implement. One thing to help ensure success is making an exposure hierarchy. In short, this step entails breaking that fear into small manageable steps and ordering them from easiest to hardest. If you jump in too fast, you might end up panicking and escaping, triggering a negative response from your brain that reinforces that fear. That is why facing the anxieties in tiny, manageable steps that feel safe to you will be more effective at decreasing your anxiety. Additionally, it is vital to participate in the exposure and sit with the uncomfortableness. During these challenges, make sure to sit with your anxiety until it decreases or until a pre-clarified period of time.
Living life to the fullest can be hard when disordered anxiety starts as a result of repeated avoidance. By facing fears in an exposure hierarchy, it is possible to learn to manage and decrease overall anxiety. However, don’t be discouraged if you are struggling; facing your fears is easier said than done. It’s important to remember that the courage of facing your fears does not entitle the absence of anxiety, it is about experiencing the anxiety despite your fears.
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